Arcona Reel Band,
First Draught
(Rockville Records, 1999)

You know a band is serious about its music when it lists a band chiropractor on the back cover of its latest album. But there he is, Dr. John Pantalone of Hummelstown, Pa., listed just below the more usual listings such as cover art, digital mastering, mixing and such. Pantalone must do a pretty good job, 'cause this band certainly ain't stiff. The evidence is available on First Draught, which is oddly enough the fifth album released by the American-Celtic folk ensemble, the Arcona Reel Band.

With seven members and a variety of instruments listed on the back, you come into this one expecting a full sound -- and you won't be disappointed. Something else you might expect -- but won't find here -- is a bunch of grandstanders competing for prominence. These folks have put together a balanced package, giving each performer his or her due. Alanna Berger, for instance, has her first moment in the spotlight during "Scarce o' Tatties," soaring through the lively pipe tune at a breakneck pace on her hammered dulcimer. Bob Smith has his turn on "Carolan's Draught," an Irish standard which benefits from his precise guitar work.

Don't think I'm talking about solos here. While the musicians take turns displaying their skills, this is top-rate ensemble work,where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The band is made up of Berger on hammered dulcimer, Henry Cohen on fiddle, mandolin and banjo, Brian Kahler on bodhran and wooden spoons, Blaise Liffick on guitar, Sparkie Radcliffe on upright bass and mandolin, Tom Reese on flute and pennywhistle, and Smith on guitar. Cellist Lauri Reese guests.

And it's a grand mix of tunes, too, including a wild "Staten Island Hornpipe" and a melancholy "Skye Boat Song." The "Titanic Medley" might ring a few bells with anyone who's seen a certain, not-to-be-named ocean liner go down in a recent, not-to-be-named blockbuster film. The tunes -- "Kesh Jig," "Blarney Pilgrim," "John Ryan's Polka" and "Drowsy Maggie" -- were played by the band belowdecks in one of my favorite scenes. (A review of the band who performed in that movie, Gaelic Storm, is also available at Rambles.)

You might think you recognize the third track -- "The Little Beggarman," you'll shout out when you hear it, or perhaps "Red-Haired Boy" (if you're of the sort likely to shout things out while listening to music instead of reading the liner notes like you should to avoid these embarrassing mistakes) -- but no, it's "Gilderoy," an English country dance tune which is a slower, minor-key version of its better-known Irish cousins. Two you definitely won't recognize, unless you've been hanging around Arcona performances, are "Darby's Jig," a lively flute-and-fiddle jig with a dab of jazz influence, and "Acorn Waltz," inspired by falling oak-fruit. Both tunes are from the pen of Arcona flute wizard Tom Reese, whose jazz background serves him well in his new Celtic shoes.

Reese, one of a few recent additions to the Arcona lineup, was a real find. Not to downplay the contributions of anyone else in the band, but his obvious jazz influences and his swooping runs on flute and whistle provide a startling freshness to the overall sound and help separate Arcona from the growing core of Celtic bands on the market.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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